A Powerful Tool of the Trade

During the holidays, a good friend surprised me with a very cool gift. She bought me a subscription to MasterClass, the online courses that feature luminaries such as Judy Blume, James Patterson and R.L. Stine. What a perfect gift for a nerd like me! I’ve always loved school, so I devoured the courses, pausing the video frequently to take notes. MasterClass gives you access to all sorts of lectures, but so far, I’ve only listened to the novelists. (But I believe checking out other disciplines will open up the imagination, so I plan to watch Jane Goodall’s course on conservation and Aaron Sorkin’s course on screenwriting…one of these days…)

Anyway, since listening to the novelists’ lectures, one tool of the trade that I’ve implemented is this: the outline. That’s right. I used to think of outlining as a tedious chore, but I’ve completely changed my opinion. I’m not just creating a skeleton outline anymore (which I’d already done for a couple of manuscripts), but instead, I’m working out a comprehensive outline that delves into each chapter in great detail.

You see, an outline is like a lightsaber. Coupled with the Force of a Jedi (the craft of a good writer), the results can be spectacular. Okay, this Star Wars analogy is a bit overblown, and I’m describing the outline to be much sexier than it actually is. But I’m now a big fan.

Both Patterson and Stine mentioned that outlining is THE most important tool for them. Patterson mentioned that he often creates multiple versions of his outline and doesn’t start writing the story until the outline is done, so I was convinced I needed to try an extensive, detailed outline. And Stine mentioned this fascinating tidbit: having an extensive outline, with the plot points figured out, makes writing FUN instead of laborious. Imagine that!

(Granted, both Patterson and Stine write plot-driven fiction, as opposed to Judy Blume’s character-driven stories, but I think outlines could work well for both types of stories.)

So for my latest project, I’ve been working with a 14-page outline. My most detailed outline ever. And you know what? It’s awesome. Because the map is there. Because I’m not deleting entire chapters where the story has veered off in odd directions. Because the writing is going much, much faster. I’m not just sitting there staring out the window, wondering what should happen next.

An outline doesn’t guarantee that the book will be any good. Not even close. You still need the Force (good craft). But what an outline does is this: it helps you figure out very quickly whether your story is working at a very fundamental level down at its bones, its structure. Is the pacing off? Is there too much going on in one chapter, too little in another? Is there a satisfying start, middle and end? Without an outline, you have to go through multiple drafts of the same story to figure this out. But with an outline, you see the big picture and all the details before you begin. And that makes a huge difference.

Between being a pantser (one who writes by the seat of her pants) and a plotter (one who outlines extensively), I’m beginning to learn that I favor being the latter.

And then there are the uber masters (hello, Judy Blume!), who don’t outline at all because the perfect story with the perfect structure is worked out in their heads. Judy Blume is the Yoda of the craft.

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